TALLAHASSEE — Laura Sherry grew up speaking Italian in a small village in Sicily and would like to teach her native language at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs.
But the Spanish teacher can't, unless she earns a second bachelor's degree in Italian. She feels like that's redundant, expensive and time-consuming, since she can already speak, read and write her native tongue.
Now, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers wants to change that. They have proposed the Legislature make it easier for those like Sherry to teach languages not commonly found in classrooms now.
The plan, SB 1062/HB 207, would give Florida's teachers an easier way to get temporarily certified in 11 new languages, including Italian, Chinese, Arabic and even Haitian Creole.
The plan's sponsors say Florida's current language certification plan is outdated.
"We determined which four languages would be taught in Florida schools in the 1980s, when French was the diplomatic language," said Rep. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. "Those days are gone. Over. Kids want to compete in a global economy."
Currently, Florida offers teachers $25 certification tests in four languages: Spanish, French, German and Latin, which means those are standard in most school districts. Teachers wanting to instruct in those four languages can earn a temporary certification for three years just by passing the state test, if they haven't specialized in the language.
By contrast, teachers of other foreign languages must first have a major or bachelor's degree in that language.
The proposal would allow teachers to earn a temporary three-year certification in any of 11 additional languages by passing a test issued by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Teachers would pay for the exams, $134 for an oral exam and $65 for a written test. Already, 15 other states, most recently Texas, use the council's tests to certify foreign language teachers.
The proposal would still leave school districts in charge of deciding whether there's enough students to take a new language course. And it would most benefit teachers who are already native speakers, like Sherry, who has taught Spanish in the Pinellas County School District since 1990.
"I've cultivated my native language, I could very easily teach it," said Sherry, who gravitated toward Spanish early in her career because that's what students wanted then. Now her students want more, including Italian.
Italian language-lovers helped launch the bill. Both sponsors, Rep. Sachs and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, belong to a little-known caucus in Tallahassee called the Italian Caucus, which is more social than political in nature.
"It's kind of funny, because we don't necessarily have many issues — or any issues," Dockery said. But the Sons of Italy in America and other Florida-based Italian-American clubs have recently been lobbying anyone who would listen, including the Italian Caucus, to get more Italian classes in the school system.
So Sachs and Dockery started out with an Italian bill, but they added Chinese at the request of students looking for more useful languages in a global business world.
Then, the state education department warned that creating a new language certification test would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's when proponents found the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, which opened the door to even more languages.
"My son got the highest grade in the country in a Latin exam — absolutely meaningless in terms of finding a job, unless he wants to be pope," Sachs said.
The bill has passed one Senate committee and has several more stops in the House. Sachs and Dockery say they're hopeful it will pass this session, which will be dominated by measures to address a massive budget crunch.
"It doesn't need money, so I think we're in pretty good shape," Dockery said.
Jennifer Liberto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.